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Transforming U.S. Foreign Policy

December 2, 2008


With the change in U.S. administrations just over a month away, some of the details about how U.S. foreign policy might change are becoming clearer. Yesterday, President-elect Obama introduced the troika that will help him form and carry-out his foreign policy. It’s an interesting mix of individuals that includes “two veteran cold warriors and a political rival whose records are all more hawkish than that of the new president” [“A Handpicked Obama Team for a Shift in Foreign Policy,” by David E. Sanger, New York Times, 30 November 2008].

“Yet all three of his choices — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the rival turned secretary of state; Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander, as national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, the current and future defense secretary — have embraced a sweeping shift of priorities and resources in the national security arena.”

That “sweeping shift” includes a cadre of people more in line with my colleague Tom Barnett’s vision of a System Administrator (SysAdmin) force tasked with securing the peace. Such a force is more civilian oriented and less kinetic (it doesn’t blow things up). It still relies on the backing a powerful military (peace through strength remains important), but the focus of that military is less on near-peer military engagements and more on asymmetric threats that our forces have faced for the past decade and a half in the area Tom defines as the Gap.

“The shift would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states. However, it is unclear whether the financing would be shifted from the Pentagon; Mr. Obama has also committed to increasing the number of American combat troops. Whether they can make the change — one that Mr. Obama started talking about in the summer of 2007, when his candidacy was a long shot at best — ‘will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency,’ one of his senior advisers said recently. The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the three have all embraced ‘a rebalancing of America’s national security portfolio’ after a huge investment in new combat capabilities during the Bush years.”

Tom would argue that the change has been in the making for some time and is not really “an experiment.” Denis McDonough, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser, makes that same point.

“‘This is not an experiment, but a pragmatic solution to a long-acknowledged problem,’ he said. ‘During the campaign the then-senator invested a lot of time reaching out to retired military and also younger officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw on lessons learned. There wasn’t a meeting that didn’t include a discussion of the need to strengthen and integrate the other tools of national power to succeed against unconventional threats. It is critical to a long-term successful and sustainable national security strategy in the 21st century.’ Mr. Obama’s advisers said they were already bracing themselves for the charge from the right that he is investing in social work, even though President Bush repeatedly promised such a shift, starting in a series of speeches in late 2005. … Mr. Obama’s best political cover may come from Mr. Gates, the former Central Intelligence Agency director and veteran of the cold war, who just months ago said it was ‘hard to imagine any circumstance” in which he would stay in his post at the Pentagon. Now he will do exactly that.”

Sanger points out that about a year ago, “to studied silence from the Bush White House, Mr. Gates began giving a series of speeches about the limits of military power in wars in which no military victory is possible. He made popular the statistic, quoted by Mr. Obama, that the United States has more members of military marching bands than foreign service officers.” In a post I published in July [Militarization of U.S. Aid to Africa Raises Concerns], I noted that Gates was a strong voice for change. I wrote:

“It’s not surprising that an organization as large as the Department of Defense often finds itself in the harsh light of criticism. In the past, accusing the military of usurping funds from the State Department and aid agencies was both credible and accurate. The current Secretary of Defense, however, has openly called for more funds for those groups. Early in his tenure as SecDef, Robert Gates formally called ‘for a ‘dramatic increase’ in the U.S. budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, arguing that al-Qaeda does a better job than Washington of communicating its message overseas and that U.S. deployment of civilians abroad has been “ad hoc and on the fly.” In a speech that emphasized the importance of “soft power” to prevent and end conflicts, Gates suggested beefing up the State Department’s foreign affairs budget of $36 billion, even as he acknowledged that Pentagon observers might consider it “blasphemy” for a sitting defense secretary to make such an appeal for another agency [“Gates Urges Increased Funding for Diplomacy,” by Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, 27 November 2007]. McCrummen underscores the fact that Gates has not changed his mind about that subject in months since he delivered that speech.

‘Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned this week against the risk of a “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy and said the State Department should lead U.S. engagement with other countries. The Pentagon, which controlled about 3 percent of official aid money a decade ago, now controls 22 percent, while the U.S. Agency for International Development’s share has declined from 65 percent to 40 percent, according to the 56-page report.’

“Facts are facts, but historical trends cannot necessarily be projected linearly into the future. Hopefully, the next president will appoint someone as enlightened as Robert Gates to lead the Defense Department and the trend will be reversed.”

It is easy to see why Obama sees a kindred spirit in Gates. Sanger continues:

Gates “also denounced ‘the gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist and communicate with other parts of the world — the “soft power” which had been so important throughout the cold war.’ He blamed both the Clinton and Bush administrations and said later in an interview that ‘it is almost like we forgot everything we learned in Vietnam.'”

For more on Gates’ thinking, read my post Shocked and Awed. This shift in thinking supports development efforts aimed at bringing millions of more people out of poverty and giving them a stake in the future. It is also complementary to the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ approach, which stresses job creation and sustainable development to help foster the emergence of a global middle class. The second member of Obama’s foreign policy troika is also an interesting character and a throwback to the earlier kind of soldier/statesman that used to fill the ranks of the U.S. military senior leadership.

“Mr. Obama’s choice for national security adviser, General Jones, took the critique a step further in a searing report this year on what he called the Bush administration’s failed strategy in Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama has vowed to intensify the fight as American troops depart from Iraq. When the report came out, General Jones was widely quoted as saying, ‘Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan,’ a comment that directly contradicted the White House. But he went on to describe why the United States and its allies were not winning: After nearly seven years of fighting, they had failed to develop a strategy that could dependably bring reconstruction projects and other assistance into areas from which the Taliban had been routed — making each victory a temporary one, reversed as soon as the forces departed. Several times during his presidency, Mr. Bush promised to alter that strategy, even creating a ‘civilian reserve corps’ of nation-builders under State Department auspices, but the administration never committed serious funds or personnel to the effort. If Mr. Obama and his team can bring about that kind of shift, it could mark one of the most significant changes in national security strategy in decades and greatly enhance the powers of Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state.”

Jones has an appreciation for old allies (learned during his time as the commander in chief of NATO forces) and for the importance of new friends — learned during his distinguished career as a Marine. How the first two members of the troika work with the third, Senator Clinton, will be interesting to see. There remains a remarkable dislike for the Clintons among many military personnel. If the troika works together with President-elect Obama to bring about transformation and manages to keep the military as a strong ally in the effort, it could prove to be a strong team indeed. Sanger reports that transformation won’t be easy.

“Mrs. Clinton may find, as her predecessor Condoleezza Rice and others in the Bush administration discovered, that building up civilian capacity is easier to advocate than execute. That problem will be no less acute for Mr. Obama in Afghanistan, where the building projects and job-creation activities that Mr. Bush promised in 2002, soon after the invasion, and then again in late 2005, have ground to a halt in many parts of the country because the security situation has made it too dangerous for the State Department’s ‘provincial reconstruction teams’ to operate. Ms. Rice recently ordered a review of what had gone wrong with the reconstruction team strategy, part of a broader review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy that the Bush White House is turning over to its successors. Mr. Obama has promised a diplomatic push that is much broader than Afghanistan. In October 2007, he pledged to make diplomacy a high priority. ‘Instead of shuttering consulates, we need to open them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world,’ he said.”

The biggest battles, of course, will be over money. As Sanger notes:

“One of the biggest questions, though, will be whether the money to expand this civilian capability comes out of the Pentagon budget. So far, Congress has been very reluctant to go down that road. Mr. Gates acknowledged a year ago, during the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, that for many in the Pentagon it was ‘blasphemy’ for ‘a sitting secretary of defense to travel halfway across the country to make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies.’ He noted that when Adm. Mike Mullen was chief of naval operations, ‘he once said he’d hand a part of his budget to the State Department “in a heartbeat” assuming it was spent in the right place.’ Admiral Mullen is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he met Mr. Obama two weeks ago for their first lengthy discussion of priorities. It was not clear if he was asked to give up part of his budget.”

In addition to Gates, Clinton, and Jones, President-elect Obama announced that his closest foreign policy advisor, Susan E. Rice, will be his nominee as ambassador to the United Nations [“Choice for U.N. Backs Strong Action Against Mass Killings,” by Peter Baker, New York Times, 30 November 2008]. This is a strong signal that Obama intends to work more closely with the UN in trying to bring about change. His new team has even drawn praise from Republicans.

“‘The triumvirate of Gates, Clinton and Jones to lead Obama’s national security team instills great confidence at home and abroad and further strengthens the growing respect for the president-elect’s courage and ability to exercise sound judgment in selecting the best and the brightest to implement our nation’s security policies,’ said Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, a former chairman of the Armed Services Committee.”

Even though the new year will usher in a new administration, the general outlines of the administration’s foreign policy are pretty well understood. The players involved are fairly well known and their records are relatively clear as well. The Bush administration is also doing all that it can to help make the transition go smoothly. All of this bodes well for ensuring that the new team hits the ground running and that it will be prepared for the inevitable test it is sure to face.

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